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The Lowland Clearances

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The consolidation of small farms into larger holdings was a fundamentally important element in the game-plan of landlords as the agricultural revolution "took off" in the Lowlands in the last half of the 18th century. On this page, we introduce some evidence that it may have actually been some of the more progressive tenants themselves who first "discovered" the inherent efficiencies of larger farms. This should not come as a surprise since...

  • It was the working farmer who could first see the abundant fruits of individual effort  and keeping cattle fenced.
  • It was the rural communicant, in the spirit of individuality, who questioned religious dogma .
  • As "Shrewd intelligent emigrants, mostly from the south of Scotland, quite capable of appreciating the best productions of his gifted mind, so that he had a constant stimulus to study." (1)  The average middle class thinker probably influenced the Scottish enlightenment.

Of course, once the landlords caught onto the notion of consolidating farms into larger units (and the benefits of evicting tenants) so that overall income would increase, they were only too happy to promote the process more widely -- so began the Lowland Clearances.  


The McCowans in
Early Eighteenth Century Cumnock

Through the first half of the eighteenth century, the McCowans seemed to be the dominant tenants on the farms of the Earl of Dumfries that were immediately southwest of the village of Cumnock. Tacks (leases) found in Dumfries House(2) include:

  • "Orchyardtoune ... together with that cottar [subtenant] tack called the nether house of Mure", 15 years, William McOwan, 1700
  • Barmilkhill, 19 years, Robert McCowan in Robertoun, 1702
  • Robertoun, 13 years, William McOwan in Orchyardtoun, 1713
  • Little Kairn, Craighouse and Glengyron, 13 years, David McCowan in Glengyron, 1728
  • Orchardtoun, 19 years, Andrew McOwan in Orchardtoun, 1749
  • Hill of Leifnorries, 19 years, John McCowan in Hill of Leifnorries, 1754.

Rents were also paid on the following farms:

  • Barmickhill, Hew McCowan in Orcharton, 1742
  • Skares of Auchinway, David McCowan, 1745, and William McCowan
  • Little Chang, George McCowan, 1764
  • Langholm, William McCowan, carrier, 1766
  • and also by James McCowan, 1768.

It is indeed interesting to note that Robert McCowan in 1702, William McOwan in 1713, David McCowan in 1728 and Hew McCowan in 1742 evidently held leases on two or more adjacent farms. In 1751 an Andrew McCowan also took leases on neighbouring farms in Ochiltree, the Parish immediately west of Cumnock (Burnockmiln and Hillhead).

As we will see, the landlord-generated "consolidation" of farms did not begin in earnest in Cumnock until after mid-century. Could these five tenants have been part of an earlier tenant-generated consolidation process? Did some aspects of local agricultural improvement begin, not with the Laird, but with his progressive tenants?

Those McCowans who tenanted sizeable farms directly from the laird were probably still quite comfortably positioned in early eighteenth century Cumnock society. Two of the most successful Cumnock McCowans in this period appear to have been Hugh McCowan in Pennyfadzeochmiln and Hew McCowan in Glengyron, both of whom made arrangements to settle their affairs in 1728. Their debtors included farmers, merchants, smiths, fleshers and landowners.(3) Twenty five pounds Scots were left by Hugh McCowan in Pennyfadzeochmiln "for the use and behoof of the poor" of Old Cumnock Parish.(4) This sum was about the same as the maximum yearly wage permitted, by law, for the best farm servants in Lanark, about 25 miles northeast of Cumnock.(5) Many of the tenants of the Earl of Dumfries were bound, by the terms of their lease, to take their grain to the mill at Pennyfadzeoch. William McCowan (presumably the tenant in Orchardton) was appointed an elder in Old Cumnock Parish Church in 1712.(6)

From To Sustene the Personis: The Agricultural Revolution
Scarboro Heights Record, V11 #2


(1)  Although Rev. James George's Scarborough (St. Andrew's) communicants may have been influenced by his 1,700 sermons, they certainly had minds of their own, as suggested in Rev. George's obituary which appeared in The Presbyterian in Oct., 1870.

(2)   With thanks to the Most Honourable, Late Marquess of Bute, and his archivists.

(3)   Cumnock Regality Court Records, Scottish Record Office, SC6/79/1

(4)   Kirk Session Minutes, Old Cumnock Parish, CH2/81/2

(5)   Scottish History Society, Minutes of the Justices of the Peace for Lanarkshire, 1707-23, p. 168, 1716.

(6)   Kirk Session Minutes, Old Cumnock Parish, CH2/81/1, March 6 1712.